Saturday, 26 April 2014

How to Listen to your Soul

Go somewhere you find beautiful - the beach, an art gallery, the woods, your favourite part of your favourite city.  You do not have to be alone; you can be with others, of course you can, but it might serve you to be alone.  If the idea of being on your own frightens or discomfits you, you should definitely be on your own.

Walk and walk and look about you; stand for as long as you want to and stare at whatever catches your attention: a crack in the pavement, an image or piece of art that moves you, the sky, other people.  It is important that you do not rush.  And nobody should be expecting you.  You must not put a deadline on your wanderings, nor should you have someone waiting for you at the other end of your journey - hearing your soul speak takes time and patience, so give yourself time.  Listening to your soul move inside you takes silence and courage, so don't fool yourself that you are listening fully if you know that at your journey's end you will fill your mind with other people's voices.

Walk.  Sit.  Look.  Eat.  Drink.  Write if you want to, but do not read; books are just inanimate versions of other people's voices and you will not hear your own voice if you continually overlay it with other people's words, thoughts and feelings.

Don't actively seek your soul's voice; it cannot be hunted down and found.  Your soul's voice emerges when you are doing something else, when you are looking at the sky, or walking across the sand with the wind blowing in your face.  Just put yourself in the right place with a certain level of quiet and wait.  Make of yourself a blank canvas upon which your soul's voice will draw the colour and image.

All of us know for ourselves.  The answers to our own questions are always waiting within.  The rest of your life has already been planted within you, like a seed.

If there is fear, let there be fear - you are safe in your favourite place, let it be.  There might be joy, or excitement, sadness or pain, just let it be.  Your soul's voice cannot be heard above mental struggle, or above your efforts not to feel what you feel.  Just walk, stop, look around, absorb what is.

Do it once.
Do it again.
Turn your ear inward as often as you can.  Turn every dog walk into an opportunity to listen, every train journey, every delay.  Learn how to live alongside your own true voice.  It won't ever pretend you are what you are not; it won't ever be unkind to you.  Which is not to say that your soul's voice will always be an easy listen - the truth you already know is not always comfortable to hear.

If you stop trampling all over your own soul with your intellect, your struggling, your self-judgment, then you will find it there waiting for you, saying, 'My dear, what took you so long?'

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The Trouble with Yoga

"The trouble with yoga," she said, "Is that you see things clearly, you become calm, but then you notice the anger and the difficulty much more." 

She has been practising for many years, a gentle, subtle and patient practice including pranayama, meditation, asana and yoga nidra; she hasn't fiddled around the edges of practice, like many of us do, leaping about like gymnasts for years until we finally get an inkling that something much more amazing and life-changing is going on than mere physical contortion, no, she has always been a serious and humble yoga student, dedicated and committed to a regular practice.  But she is facing some difficulties in her life and when you have a serious yoga practice there's no escaping them, because in the stillness of yoga we see ourselves clearly.  That's the trouble with yoga, she's right.

Yoga transforms people; it is alchemical.  As a teacher it is my privilege to watch people reach the point of transformation and to bravely step towards it.  If you practice yoga it will change you; always for the better, but not always without troubles.  I have watched people learn to accommodate serious physical illness and injury; come to terms with mental illness; learn to accept themselves and therefore find love; move through relationship break-ups.  I have watched people stumble towards self-understanding and make their first tentative moves towards truly valuing themselves and thus changing their lives. 

People move towards transformation slowly and falteringly, periods of denial punctuated by moments of sometimes painful clarity; and when transformation seems to happen quickly, it is only that what is being observed is years of stored up transformative energy bursting forth in a blinding flash: suddenly someone changes job, alters their priorities, ends a relationship, or starts a new one, moves house,  etc., etc., but in truth 'sudden' transformation has its basis in years of slowly moving towards understanding.

Patanjali tells us that our view of the world is coloured by our subjectivity, as the old Talmud saying has it, "We do not see the world as it is, but how we are", he counsels that we must clear our minds and our hearts so that we might see clearly and live better.  He assures us that once we have cleared our minds, we will realise the truth of human life: all is one, separation is an illusion.  Once we know this, we live better lives, we are happier, more fulfilled, kinder, more eager to serve.

I have a friend who says that yoga is "too quick" and I think I understand what she means; sometimes we don't feel ready to sit quietly with the maelstrom that whirls inside us; with the damage, the love, the joy and the hurt that we hold inside (it is a strange fact that sometimes it is as hard to sit with our own joy and sense of freedom as it is to sit with our pain).  But we cannot live full lives if we do not learn to sit with the dark and light within, to encompass them both as part of ourselves and through doing so forgive ourselves for our weaknesses and know our strengths.  Forgiveness and compassion must begin within our own hearts, for it is absolutely impossible to give those things to other people when we are unable to give them to ourselves.

When we delay the transformation that beckons, and all of us do this sometimes to a greater or lesser extent, then we live for that time within a false sense of comfort, as the Bhagavad Gita says, with pleasure that later brings pain; refusing to remove the sticking-plaster that we know must be pulled off at some point.  But everybody does this sometimes.  Transformation is very rarely easy.

Easter is a good time for considering transformation, whether or not you are a Christian, because the story of Easter tells us that we can all be born again and again, that this is one of the gifts of being human.  I heard a Bishop's letter this weekend and in it he said, "Resurrection is not for the faint-hearted", I loved that phrase for the encouragement it gives (you are finding it difficult because it is difficult, don't blame yourself for that) and because it implies an immediacy to the story of Christ: resurrection is not just what happened in Christ's life, it is happening to you too.

This is the other trouble with yoga: transformation happens constantly and will continue throughout your life and your yoga practice; there will be no defining moment when everything becomes clear and you get it all right.  It is more akin to stumbling towards the light on an uneven path with steep inclines, the occasional exhilarating summit (look how far you have come!) and moments of great loss, when you stand by the road lamenting that not so long ago the path was clear and you knew the direction in which you were headed.  Sometimes a strong hand will draw you forward, at others you will be inching forward alone and in darkness.

So she is right, my student, this is the trouble with yoga: once you have experienced the peace that lives inside you as a naturally arising state, you ask why it is that you do not feel at peace more often.  It is in seeking the answers to that question that the way rolls out beneath your feet and your own ever-evolving transformation begins.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Self Care

I have a student who is quite ill at present, she has been suffering for some time now, but recently her illness has become more severe and it has begun to effect her life, what she is able to do with her time, her sleeping patterns and her mood.  She is in a bad way.

"You are going to have to learn to look after yourself," I counselled, "And this can be very hard indeed for some people."
"You mean be more selfish," she replied.

It was not what I meant at all, but it is not the first time that someone I teach has conflated selfishness with self care.

Being selfish is being egocentric, self-seeking, self-obsessed, self-serving and self-absorbed.  Selfish people have nothing to give anybody, unless it in their own interest.

Self care is looking after yourself so that you can be vibrantly well, full of energy and good cheer.  The consequence of being positively bursting with good health?  Contentment certainly, freedom from pain, a more optimistic attitude and pursuant to this: patience, generosity, kindness.  The world needs more of those things.

Self care, true self-care, is not getting yourself a manicure, or treating yourself to a bar of chocolate, it is not going to your favourite coffee shop for a cappuccino, or having an extra glass of wine.  These things all have their place and may well be ways in which you treat yourself, but self care is something entirely different from a treat.

Self care is taking the time to truly understand what makes you tick; knowing which things keep you well and choosing them, so that you feel better, behave better and become a positive force in the world.

I'm not going to discuss here the reasons why we have learnt that self care is selfish, although I have some theories, as, no doubt, have you.  What I care about more than understanding how and why we got into this sorry state, is ending it.

In many ways yoga is all about self care: Patanjali counsels us to purify and cleanse our bodies, to surround ourselves with positive people, to practice yoga regularly, diligently and with commitment, to learn how to breathe properly and how to be patient, how to have balance, how to be at peace.

The first stages of deep meditation (by which I mean an established and formal meditation practice) are all about learning discrimination.  When you come to your yoga mat every day and sit in the same way and the same place at the same time, then you inevitably begin to notice yourself in much more subtle ways than you are used to.  You begin to ask, Why are my shoulders tight today?  Why is my breathing calmer than yesterday?  What have I done in the last 24 hours to make myself so constricted inside?  These questions lead you to self-discovery and transformation. 

Even if you do not have a formal meditation practice (please keep trying), there are questions that you can ask yourself to help yourself along:
  • what things in life fill you with joy?
  • what leeches you of energy?
  • which people make you feel better about yourself and more buoyant about life, which ones weigh you down?
  • what foods suit your constitution the best?  How can you choose those foods more often?
  • why do you fall in to bad habits (smoking, using alcohol as a relaxant, using food for comfort rather than nourishment) and what can you do to spot these harmful patterns in advance?
  • have you been outside today?  How does spending time outside improve your life?
  • what did you learn today?  What was new?
  • do you sleep well and wake up feeling refreshed?  Or do you sleep fitfully and wake up as tired as when you laid your head on your pillow the night before?
We all know crotchety people, short-tempered people, intolerant people, pessimistic people, if you are reading this blog and you practise yoga I'm guessing you don't want to be one of those.  But it's hard to be generous and forgiving, kind and patient, to smile and share happiness when you feel ill, tense, tired and out of sorts.  It is easier to be the person you hope to be when you are well, when you have slept a full 8 hours in peace, when you are physically fit and free of pain.

I'm not sure that we can ever hope to look after anyone else well and consistently, if we do not know how to look after ourselves; nor can we teach our children to treat themselves kindly if we do not show them that we are doing just that for ourselves ('Do as I say, not as I do' was never an effective way of teaching anybody anything).

My teacher, Mukunda, said that everywhere you look there are leaky buckets, people who are empty of energy and vigour, but that if you fill your bucket up, then your overflow goes into the buckets of those in need; thus when you fill your bucket up, you simultaneously help others to plug the holes in theirs.  He said that you can positively change somebody's life forever by being kind to them.

This is how self care becomes an act of altruism, for it enables you unfailingly to give more generously of yourself, to more people, more often.  It is time to unlearn the habit of not listening to what we need; it is time to rebrand self care in our minds, so that we do not allow negative associations with selfishness to interfere with our attempts to be more whole, more peaceful and more giving.

“Nobody can teach me who I am. You can describe parts of me, but who I am - and what I need - is something I have to find out myself.”
Chinua Achebe